Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?

If the form-filling that plagues academia is pointless, why do academics comply with it? asks Eliane Glaser

May 21, 2015

Source: Alamy/iStock montage

We spend more and more time assessing what we do, and fewer and fewer hours doing it - just to give administrators something to do for their gold-plated salaries

Time allocation forms, research excellence framework documentation, module monitoring, and research funding applications: these Gradgrindian horrors are the subject of many a senior common room rant, and they have been extensively documented in these pages. Academics are spending less and less time thinking, reading and writing, and ever more time filling out forms. It seems clear that bureaucracy is somehow intertwined with the transformation of what were once institutions devoted to the pursuit of knowledge into commercial enterprises. Yet for me, two conundrums remain. If the “modernisation” of higher education is supposedly all about efficiency and productivity, why are managers imposing tasks that are by any common-sense measure a complete waste of time? And if academics are so demonstrably fed up with demands to fill out yet another piece of pointless paperwork, why do we continue to consent?

As part of a knowledge exchange project at my university – itself arguably a product of the bureaucratic imperative to measure “impact” – I organised a modest survey of academic bureaucracy: first, to identify the bureaucratic activities carried out by colleagues at my institution and beyond; second, to attempt to identify their source and apparent motivation; and third – crucially – to probe the underlying factors that might explain the curious fact of academic compliance.

Serendipitously, a book of essays on bureaucracy by David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, appeared in March. Titled The Utopia of Rules, it’s a fascinating elucidation of an ostensibly unpromising topic. Bureaucracy is traditionally associated with the public sphere. But as Graeber demonstrates, this association is far from natural: it is the result of bureaucratic controls being forcibly applied to the public sector. Meanwhile, the private sector appears lean only because the regulatory apparatus has been all but stripped away: in the public sector, bureaucracy is called “accountability”, in the private sector, it’s “red tape”.

Shielded, therefore, by an illusory opposition between the market and bureaucracy, the new university management imposes systems of audit, evaluation, assessment and accreditation in the name of increased value for money. Yet this is deeply ironic, because the infinite regress of online forms and email chains leads academics directly away from productivity. In a related, widely read article for Strike! magazine titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, Graeber asks why it is that in advanced Western economies, saturated in the rhetoric of austerity, and supposedly reaping the rewards of modern technology, administrative labour has proliferated. “In a world ever more in thrall to the imperatives of profit, competition and market-driven efficiency,” Graeber observes, “it is bizarre for employers in the public and private sector alike to be behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they do not appear to need.” Graeber’s explanation is that long-hours pen-pushing – or mouse-clicking – is imposed on employees as a form of social control: it’s a way of ensuring that we are too monitored, busy and tired to raise questions or revolt.

The “moral and spiritual damage” resulting from the fact that “huge swathes of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed” is, Graeber claims, “a scar across our collective soul”. Likewise, bureaucracy has become a ubiquitous cliché of modern academia, and to call it out seems naive, as if not accepting the “real world”. Yet it produces a disjunctive sense of playing along with a fiction.

If accounting measures applied to academia to make it more efficient actually have the opposite effect, what is their real purpose? Is the impulse to count and assess all activity via “performance indicators” and “quality assurance” a quixotic yet sincere attempt to increase productivity; the application of a belief that things are not real unless delineated virtually; a simple failure to grasp that the more time one spends trying to “capture” academic “output” via bean-counting and online systems of representation, the more it slips away? Since the financial crash of 2008-09, we have seen ample evidence of misguided faith in marketisation to suggest that this explanation is credible. Yet it does not account for the moralising and punitive manner in which bureaucratic demands are formulated. They are derived from private sector managerialism, yet while they have been largely flushed out of business itself, they are applied to academia in a correctional spirit, as if it is not behaving in a sufficiently businesslike manner.

There’s a simple explanation for the drive to quantify everything: the replacement of the horizontal self-government of university departments with the vertical hierarchy of departmental heads and senior management. Academics used to document their output on their CVs; now, managers have to find ways to justify their existence. “Everyone knows the results are absurd,” Graeber tells me via email. “We all spend more and more hours of our day discussing, analysing and assessing what we do, and fewer and fewer hours actually doing it, and all of it, just to give these high-level administrators who aren’t really needed something to do for their gold-plated salaries.”

But this is more than just a power shift, Graeber notes. “It represents a transformation in our basic assumption about what a university is…Thirty years ago, if you said ‘the university’, people assumed you were referring to the faculty. Now if you say it, people assume you’re referring to the administration.” The corporate bureaucrats who now run universities are “often more interested in real estate speculation, fund-raising, sports, and ‘the student experience’ than anything that has to do with learning, teaching, or scholarship at all”.

Through a curious inversion, to insist that knowledge should be valued in and of itself, and that universities should be places of learning, has come to seem morally suspect. Just as public sector employees are repeatedly reminded that their salaries are funded by “hard-working taxpayers”, academics feel increasingly beholden to fee-paying students. The result is guilt for having a nice job, for being able to stare out the window thinking interesting thoughts about subjects that have no obvious, tangible “application”. It’s almost as if it would be better if academics spent the bulk of their time filling out forms for the sake of it, because at least then they wouldn’t be enjoying themselves on the public, or the students’, purse – even if that resulted in fewer books being written.

Marble statues, Ephesus Museum, Turkey

One acknowledged that bureaucracy ‘can become addictive and/or act as a means of avoiding other activities’. Is this an awkward truth - that form‑filling provides convenient relief from taxing intellectual labours?

The bureaucratic lexicon is revealingly disciplinary: time allocation software is introduced to make academics “account for” their time, with all the financial and moral connotations of bookkeeping and being “held to account”. A recent KPMG report on time allocation monitoring stressed that “it is important that the sector understands that there is a risk of more punitive requirements being imposed on it if the reported credibility of the…data does not improve”. Here we have a tantalising glimpse of the recognition of an open secret: that the forms are largely bunk. But this is swiftly closed off with the threat of redoubled “requirements”.

Bureaucratisation is the product of top-down edicts, therefore, but also, as Graeber’s article on “bullshit jobs” illustrates, of acquiescence. Workers themselves participate in a race to the bottom: those with dull jobs envy those whose jobs are stimulating, and those privileged few in turn feel guilty. In academia, departmental collegiality is thus recruited to the task of ensuring that everyone takes a good turn on the administrative treadmill.

Graeber recounted his attempt, during the student protests against increasing tuition fees in 2010, to come up with a way for lecturers to take part. “Most clearly weren’t going to join the occupations, but I thought some kind of boycott of more obviously meaningless paperwork – say, all those self-assessment documents that would only be used to figure out who to cut. If you see a document about ‘excellence’ or ‘quality,’ just ignore it, don’t fill it out, I said. People stared at me as if I were insane. What, not fill out the form? You have to fill out the forms! Otherwise, someone will suffer. It’s never quite clear who. But you are always made to know if you don’t do this or that form, you’re hurting someone else.” In this way, Graeber told me, “academics are trained in passivity”.

A non-specific sense of duty has come to characterise the culture: several respondents to my survey were not aware of the origin of bureaucratic demands. “No one seems to know where these ideas come from,” one said. As chains of command stretch up out of sight, there is a paradoxical risk of second-guessing their rigid necessity. Surveillance is imposed, but also internalised, as the cultural theorist Rosalind Gill has observed, by the repeated habit of describing one’s own activities.

There is an obvious practical explanation for compliance: fear of censure, of not being promoted or even of losing one’s job – not necessarily by being fired but through increased precarity once inevitable cuts are made. But my survey elicited more counter-intuitive motivations. One respondent acknowledged that bureaucracy “can become addictive and/or act as a means of avoiding other activities”. Is this an awkward truth – that while research and writing are highly prized and fiercely defended by academics, form-filling provides convenient and increasingly ubiquitous relief from the taxing intellectual labour that those really important activities require?

In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber offers a convincing account of bureaucracy’s perverse attractions. It offers a chimera of absolute transparency, consistency and fairness. It is like a game with perfect rules – and which is also not at all fun. In this sense, Graeber argues, at the heart of bureaucracy is a fear of play, of creativity. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies illustrate how creativity is inhibited by the restriction of autonomy, the hallmark of bureaucracy. The fear of freedom may be an understandable human quality, therefore, but it’s lamentable that it’s becoming so firmly enshrined in our work culture.

If form-filling provides relief from the messy challenges of research, so too does getting angry about it: one survey respondent described how a sense of grievance about bureaucracy offers a channel for “rage and aggression”, and that this is counterproductive: it’s less taxing simply to fill out the form and not get exercised about it. If the forms are futile, so is resistance. Yet as Marina Warner pointed out in her recent broadside against the neoliberal university in the London Review of Books, this is an example of what the American scholar Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”: academics kid themselves that there will be just one more form, that bureaucracy cannot just carry on expanding. This is how productive anger is endlessly deflected and deferred.

It’s understandable that the last thing academics want to do is spend yet more time thinking about bureaucracy – not only because of its already excessive impingement but also because it appears to be devoid of any meaningful substance. “Paperwork”, Graeber notes, “is boring.” But while bureaucracy itself has ballooned since the 1980s, the number of references to it in academic publications has dwindled, as if academics – along with the broader culture – are in denial about its irrational pervasiveness. Graeber argues that it’s time Foucault’s association between knowledge and power is overturned. Having knowledge does not confer power, as academics now know to their cost. Instead, power is exerted precisely through processes that seem innocuously blank.

So what are the possibilities for Bartleby-like refusal? One strategy is to cite managers’ own stated objectives of efficiency and productivity against bureaucratic injunctions. However, as one survey respondent pointed out, the very category of “productivity” is not really appropriate for academic work. “Advances can come in all shapes and sizes: the long hard slog or the eureka moment.” Teaching, likewise, “requires investment of time to be good quality – increasing ‘productivity’ is possible” – by doing more of it – “but not the primary goal of improving teaching standards”.

Ultimately, resistance is impossible without collective solidarity: compliance is a facet of isolation. While “collaboration” has become a buzzword of the grant bid, structural possibilities for cross-university cooperation remain woefully limited. Graeber, at least, sees hope in the revival of student protests: recent occupations have made the reduction of audit culture a key demand. “We’re at an historical juncture,” he concludes. “If students and staff join forces, and start trying to think together about what sort of university system they’d like to see, I think we’d be quite surprised [at] what could be done.”

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Reader's comments (8)

" Is this an awkward truth – that while research and writing are highly prized and fiercely defended by academics, form-filling provides convenient and increasingly ubiquitous relief from the taxing intellectual labour that those really important activities require?" I am afraid this is true. Very highly paid "Professors" increasingly spend their time on "Leadership" - a euphemism for bureaucracy. We went from having a VC and a Registrar with direct links to Deans and Professors to a whole army of highly paid deputy vice-chancellors, chief operating officer, and associate dean.
I agree completely. Great article Elaine. Thanks. We will be discussing these very points at this summer symposium: www.politicsofevidence.ca best, marc
Bureaucracy has become a hot topic in recent weeks following the publication of Graeber's new book. Your article read as one of the more conventional "common-sense" appeals against administration, and did not seem to offer anything beyond the "ubiquitous cliché of modern academia". In terms of an analysis of large scale 'professional bureaucracy' you have carelessly conflated bureaucracy, managerialism and marketisation. These concepts can all be used to critique the current higher education system, but they are not the same thing. In terms of form-filling, I would agree with Graeber's advice: if you suspect a form is "pointless" do not fill it out and wait to see what happens. If there is a purpose behind it, a reminder will often follow with further explanation. You will probably cut out 1/3 of the forms you complete this way. But I think the apparent indignity experienced through filling out forms is a bit extreme - purely administrative form filing for the typical academic role is likely to take less than one hour per week. But I confess that when I am working away from the university campus there can be nothing more frustrating than when an email comes in demanding my signature on a piece of paper. Bureaucracy is an unavoidable effect of large scale human organisation. Try to imagine a university without any records of its activities - do you honestly think this would lead to a better system? The challenge, as Graeber concludes, is how we can live playfully alongside bureaucracy - creating a system that is sustainable and fair, but is also open to creativity and imagination.
Just looking at the survey, I find the examples of "superfluous" documentation odd. Take grant applications - without that information how are funders, how should sponsors decide what is worth funding? The 'efficiency' behind REF is to make sure that more financial resource goes to the institutions doing the best research. You may disagree that the REF identifies the best research or the way funding is distributed, but it's obvious why it is prudent for universities to comply with it when it can mean millions of pounds of income. Without some kind of assessment process, how do those allocating the money know they are doing so effectively? You may think they're not as it is, but that means there needs to be changes to the assessment system, not to remove it entirely.
I suspect Mark Gatenby has a greater tolerance of form filling than I have. Certainly mere time spent is not the important metric. Its more the toil it takes on ones notion of self worth. The timesheet system under which I toil is particularly soul destroying in the utterly transparent nature of its pointlessness. I receive an automated reminder each month to fill in the hours I've worked across two different projects. I am costed on to each for a particular percentage of time, and I am left to assume that this percentage must be reflected back in what I report. Its important to note that not only is this impossible to do accurately, but were one to rigourously structure tasks according to a monthly time quota, rather than according to the demands generated by the project, one would be a terrible, terrible researcher. The bottom line: you must tell the system what it wants to hear, not what happened. Accordingly, I ignore these requests. Then, about every 12 months I get a personal email from someone somewhere telling me my timesheets *need to be done*. I usually ask the sender why. They reply that they *need to be done*. In its parsimony this is a difficult line to rebut. My first line of defence broken, I retreat, and spend half an hour trying to remember the password I used last time (the system makes you change the password regularly, and not reuse old ones, so this quickly becomes impossible). I stew in my rage whilst I wait for the password reset to arrive. I have a brief moment of pleasure when designing a new expletive-ridden password. The pleasure lasts as long as it takes me to realise that the next time around I wont remember this password and will have to wait for the reset again. In the spirit of resistance (and professionalism - this is my work time being wasted), I devised a means of maximal efficiency when filling out the timesheet. I divide the total monthly paid hours by the percentage I am formally allocated to each project. I then report working 18 hour days (the maximum it will allow you to enter) for as many days as it takes to fill the required quota for each of the projects. Every time I enter "18" into a box I have to tab to the next box, at which point there is a second-long pause whilst the page saves the entry, just long enough to break me out of the monotony. In this second I think about the fact that my life is finite and I'm closer to death now than I was a second ago. I end up with a timesheet that shows me working 160hrs in 9 days, and then taking the rest of the month off. Despite my act of defiance I am nevertheless furious, because the system accepts this absurd record as legitimate. My resistance isn't even noticed. In my head I wonder if clicking the Submit button does not in fact execute a Delete command. Of course it does not matter if this is true of not, the system just needs me to have that thought in my head for it to have won. In the hour since I started the task I have earned £18.90, performing an imaginary data entry job for the benefit of a machine. Now I feel guilty as well as angry. The system is called "AGRESSO", as if the designers wanted me to know I'm being trolled.
Surely, it's a great article. However, why are academics disinterested in developing performance and accountability indicators themselves? Why does bureaucracy do the job?Georg Stompel
Most professions involve an element of paperwork, why do academics think they should be different? From my experience many spend twice as long moaning about it as it would take to just do it, and they complain and vent to the admin teams they see daily, who are not those senior managers with gold-plated salaries!

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